The Toronto Mural Archive is a research project and touring exhibit, the first of its kind to survey the history of mural art in Toronto. In 2017-2018, Mural Routes has worked to piece together the story of the city’s murals through gathering research in the form of documents, articles and first-hand accounts and interviews. The archive toured across the city as The Toronto Mural Archive Exhibit from March to September of 2018. It is our hope that the archive provides context to both critically reflect and inspire the future mural art movement in Toronto and other cities.
From catching a glimpse of the Rainbow tunnel on a dreary commute up the Don Valley Parkway, to waiting in line under the iconic characters painted on Lee’s Palace, and taking in historical murals of a local neighbourhood, murals are a part of our experience in the city. Once you begin to notice them, it’s hard to imagine Toronto without its murals. But how did painting on walls become embraced and supported? What motivations inspire artists and organizers to bring art out into the streets? And what ideas are shaping the evolution of murals in this city?
This exhibit studies the origins of mural making in the city, which extend far beyond the recent boom of the past 10 to 15 years. From large scale painted advertisements, to the tradition of commissioning murals for public buildings, to the emergence of the underground graffiti scene in Toronto, the origins of murals have existed on the walls of this city for over a century.
The current motivations for creating murals range from boosting the small economies to engaging youth and communities in the power of art making, to ambitious contemporary art work that deserves a place in fine art and urban design accolades.
Finally, we reflect on the evolution and growth of mural art in Toronto. Ideas range from projects that international exchanges to broaden our horizons, to elevating the voices who have not had access to the power of mural making. The future is bright as we continue to understand the impacts of murals echoing throughout our city.
Historically, murals have been considered a form of public art and have been commissioned as such both publicly and privately in Toronto. The earliest piece of public art dates to the 1870’s; since the mid-20th century, murals have been commissioned as public art for Toronto’s public building exteriors and interiors such as theatres, civic buildings and transit stations. By the mid 1990’s, the city outlined a priority to public art in all new urban developments, increasing the amount of public art with the growth of new developments. This investment has not impact murals, as the majority of city-owned public art that has been supported and integrated into new developments is sculptural.
Currently, the vast majority of public mural projects in the city are funded through the city’s Public Realm Section – Transportation Services, separately from the department Arts and Culture which oversees Public Art. Beyond this municipal divide, reasons for the division between murals and public art could include the fact that murals are not considered permanent artworks (most mural contracts require maintenance for only 5 years), and the opinion that the artistic integrity of a mural is often compromised by community and stakeholder feedback. Many artists and organizers believe that advocacy is needed to once again elevate to murals to being considered public art in the city, as it was 50 years ago.
Toronto, with its many alleyways, ravines, rail routes and underpasses provided the perfect urban canvas for graffiti. It began to flourish by the late 1980’s, bringing influence from the city of its genesis: New York. While graffiti’s underground counterculture-culture formed its ethos on being anti-establishment (i.e. illegal), it unintentionally paved the way for the city to embrace and fund legal murals. It is thanks to the city’s use of funding to mitigate the vandalism of graffiti that opportunities were provided for murals with youth engagement, for graffiti to become more widely respected as an art form, and for Toronto’s mural scene as a whole to flourish.
By 1996, the municipal pressure to deal with graffiti vandalism acted as the spark for proactive and cooperative approach for programs and city funding, beginning with a program called The Graffiti Transformation project. The program focused on mitigating vandalism by employing and training youth to repair vandalism and create legal murals, under the guidance of artist mentors and community groups. Beginning in the late 1990’s, downtown graffiti festivals and events sought to legitimize the urban art form, expose it to the public, and bring together local and international artists. Many graffiti writers now work professionally, painting murals and selling their work in galleries.
In 2011, the city’s crack-down on graffiti vandalism led to increased laws for property owners to deal with vandalized walls at their own cost. In response, The Graffiti Transformation Project was expanded to create StreetARToronto, a new program with a greater focus on connecting property owners with artists to paint their walls, and additionally to fund professional murals across the city. The program’s success has continually increased funding for large-scale mural art in Toronto since 2012. Recent projects pair traditional artists and themes alongside graffiti artists and open possibilities to interesting collaborations. Much of the general public have gained a positive respect for the art form and culture, and the city continues to build positive relations with graffiti artists, supporting the positive aspects it can bring to the city.
Commercial mural art has produced a number of iconic advertisements painted on highly visible locations, and have become visual staples of the city. Many of the city’s longest practicing mural artists began their careers and honed their techniques in commercial mural art and sign painting. Many artists still are supported by commercial work, in addition to their own personal projects and non-commercial mural work.
Sign painting had been a practice in Toronto since the late 19th century, with a new appetite for bold and rendered advertisements beginning in the 1970’s and 80’s. The need for commercial mural painting dwindled by the mid 1990’s amidst new technologies for digital advertisements and large scale printing. Yet the trade is still thriving today; it is perhaps the recent novelty of hand-painted work that has encouraged some sign companies to have their mural artists on salary.
In light of the many building developments in the city, many of the old, faded advertisements have been torn down or become hidden by new buildings. Recently, Toronto, like many other cities, has an increased appreciation and fascination with hand painted signs, and a nostalgia for the faded ‘ghost signs’ of decades ago. This has created a movement for preserving and restoring old advertising murals, elevating their status to cultural artifacts.
The idea of using murals to draw people to a small town, neighborhood or main street in order to increase local businesses flourished in Canada in the 1980’s as a pilot project of the small town of Chemainus, BC. The murals of Chemainus began an initiative to tell the local history in a series of murals, and grew to become an example for many Canadian cities and neighbourhoods to use themed murals to revitalize and boost local economy. Murals in addition to street signs, benches, and other public infrastructure and beautification, help to signify the neighbourhood and encourage a memorable visit for visitors and locals.
Many artists recognize the importance of Toronto’s distinct “micro-neighbourhoods” in allowing for murals to thrive. These neighbourhoods are solidified through city-supported Business Improvement Associations (BIAs) who bring together local businesses to organize initiatives like events and street beautification projects including murals with support from the city’s Economic Development sector. Since 1970, the city has supported the growth of 82 BIA’s – the largest number than any other city centre in the world. The support of a BIA is often an essential link to property owners for permission to paint on local walls, as well as to connect the artist to local events and other ways to communicate and consult locally.
Murals have been utilized to tell the stories of local history and commemorate figures for centuries. In Canada, the trend became popularized in the 1980’s. The city of Chemainus, B.C. inspired Toronto’s first themed series of murals, Heritage Trail, along Kingston Road in Scarborough starting in 1990. Heritage Trail project paved the way for Mural Routes, and soon other small Toronto neighbourhoods were replicating. The proliferation of Business Improvement Area (BIA) organizations since the late 1990’s has been a strong factor in supporting mural art that tells local history and culture. Businesses have noticed that these projects can have a noticeable impact in areas where large scale ‘themed’ initiatives that stand out are ones that transform an area of the city, visually representing the areas’ history and culture and creating a destination, or an outdoor museum.
The power of telling history is of particular importance to groups who historically have not been recognized, particularly Canada’s indigenous peoples. Since the recent recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee in 2015, and the Canada 150 Celebrations initiatives of 2017, the level of awareness has been raised and a new sense of priority has been given to support indigenous artists and particularly murals to tell their stories and the indigenous history of the land.
The idea of using mural making as a tool for education and engagement became popularized in the late 1990’s, as schools hired artists to work with students on interior murals. By the late 1990’s, the city’s Graffiti Transformation Project worked alongside community organizations to initiate outdoor murals as ways to meaningfully engage youth who have been involved in vandalism or were struggling to find employment. Since then, many community, arts, and public space organizations have been dedicated to using mural making as a tool for engagement.
Education and engagement projects place much of the emphasis on the process of creating the mural. The process of dialogue, skill building and civic engagement can be just as, or more, important than the final product. One of the critiques of these types of mural projects is that the final product is not visually strong and then more susceptible to vandalism. It is a challenge for artists to develop a design process that involves many voices and hands. Professional artists can guide to youth and local volunteers through a design process and accessible art forms such as mosaics, stencilling, and painting into a drawn design.
Toronto has a reputation for shying away from bold or controversial public artwork, to the frustration of many artists. But the tradition of creating art in the streets for political and social activism has been active since the 1980’s. Many artists producing work today have strong memories and respect for the political street art and demonstrations of this era. These include street demonstrations by Greenpeace and political DIY postering mimicking advertisements. Murals are in many ways an ideal tool for activism, as they have the power to drive attention to an idea in the same way as large-scale advertisements. Their size, visibility and novelty provides high impact to get a message across to passerbys, but also through gaining media attention across the city and even internationally. If you look close enough, many artists in Toronto have worked their politics into a mural in creative, subtle or subversive ways.
Most recently, mural projects in the city have been utilized to speak to issues of gentrification, reclaiming indigenous history and rights, and highlighting the importance of environmental protection.
Murals can transform people’s experiences of the urban spaces in the city. They can brighten up a dreary commute, increase warmth and pride in a neighbourhood that feels forgotten or impersonal, and create points of interest. Murals in Toronto have often acted as catalyst for bringing more use, attention and care to Toronto’s uninspired or unwelcoming urban spaces. A mural can be a placemaking and wayfinding tool, often helping those navigate the city or providing a reason to explore by foot or bicycle. Furthermore, the creation a mural often brings attention to increasing safety and walkability, such as adding infrastructure like additional lighting, and path and sidewalk maintenance.
In the last decade, artists and producers have evolved from just painting walls to streets, transit boxes, laneways and underpasses. Recently, many artists and funders having been placing an increased emphasis on bringing public murals to neighbourhoods outside the downtown core. The act of bringing art and attention to areas which are often lack arts and culture events and spaces is important so that the impact and inspiration of art reaches all corners of the city.
As a fairly new and ever-evolving field, mural art is growing to understand the importance of assisting diverse voices to be involved and represented. Artists, managers, and funders must be mindful of who has access to decision making, content, and creation of murals in the city. Some issues to address include: artists struggling to navigate the application processes, the need for more opportunities for emerging, female, and artists of colour to build experience and a portfolio, and the lack of diverse voices to be on juries and in other positions of decision-making power in the field.
There are a number of reasons why many local professional artists are also missing opportunities to create murals. Although the amount of opportunities for funding has been rising recently, some talented artists cannot navigate the paperwork-heavy processes and applications are missing out. Artists without a background in community consultation and input on design may also be discouraged by the fact that many murals require those processes. Additionally, artists without a background in the graffiti community are often not awarded projects in certain areas dominated by graffiti.
Efforts to provide opportunities, increase accessibility and mentorship include smaller mural projects that do not require a heavy application process or portfolio such as murals on transit boxes or Bell boxes, mural group ‘jams’ that allow for mentorship and building relationships between emerging and established artists, and accessible training and workshops.
Toronto has been behind while there has been a recent international surge of bold, large scale mural art that has brought the talent of many cities into international spotlight. There are many reasons for this, including less private funding, more bureaucratic processes and safety regulations, and a greater investment in more projects that have an impact locally.
Yet, since the increasing of project support from the city’s StreetARToronto program beginning in 2012, Toronto has produced a number murals which are notable internationally. Since 2013, the city has boasted the ‘World’s Tallest Mural’, a project of monumental scale that broke world records. Toronto has also welcomed international mural artists and collectives to leave their mark and make exchanges with our local artists. Visiting artists provide an opportunity for the exchange of ideas, mentorship and relationships between Toronto and international cities. Many artists, organizations and funders are open to the possibilities of more international exchange projects.
One format for bringing in international artists and fostering exchange is through mural festivals. Toronto has had a few smaller-scale festivals since the 1990’s that have brought in international artists, but not yet to the scale and attention-grabbing level of other cities. While some artists envy the festivals which draw international talent and attention, but the task of taking on such a large event needs the right organizers and support of major sponsorships.
The future appears very bright for murals in the city of Toronto. The growing public appreciation and appetite for public art, and the heightened understanding of the impact of such projects, continually increase the investment both from public and private partners and communities. The growing opportunities for established and emerging artists allows for supporting local talent and mentoring the next generation of artists who work in public mural art.
Many artists, organizations and funders are open to the possibilities of international exchange, which would open up doors to sharing new ideas, techniques and viewpoints. Toronto is inspired by other international cities who provide larger investment in bigger artist-driven projects that prioritize the artist’s voice, and allow for more creative contemporary practice in public spaces.
The artists, funders and organizers of mural art in Toronto have the power to continue evolving. Many artists point to the need to work together to organize, share resources, exchange tips and create standards, advocate, develop training and opportunities for critique and reflection. If we work together, to teach, learn, share and grow, we can shape the potential that mural making has for Toronto and beyond.
The Toronto Mural Archive project was funded by the Ontario Arts Council, an agency of the Government of Ontario
Special thanks to our Exhibition Partners Scarborough Arts, Downtown Yonge BIA, Urbanspace Gallery, and Arts Etobicoke
This project has been produced with the support of the City of Toronto through the Toronto Arts Council.
Special thanks to those who gave their time and input.